A search on Google as to which is the longest highway in the world will bring up the Pan-American Highway. That is not surprising because it is technically over 22,000km, from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to Ushuaia in Argentina. The Pan-American Highway is not really a single network of highways, though, and the infamous, yet mystical, Darien Gap—a 106km stretch of impenetrable jungle and swamp in Colombia — derails its claim to be the world's longest highway. The Darien Gap is full of rare plants and wildlife, indigenous people, smugglers and sinister paramilitary groups and has been largely untouched by the modern world. Thus, the distinction of the world's longest highway belongs to Australia Highway 1, which runs across the Australian continent connecting all its state capitals and covering 16,725km.
I had arranged car hire with Apex Car Rentals. A week before the journey, I emailed the company that I would require a car in good condition with tires that could withstand the entire length of Australia Highway 1. I was astounded when I was told that Apex Car Rentals had geographical restrictions that applied to Tasmania, Western Australia, Northern Territory and some parts of Queensland. I had not read the fine print! In a couple of days, a former schoolmate who lived in Perth, suggested Hertz, an international car rental company that had just one restriction — that of taking their car on the ferry to Tasmania.
Sydney to Melbourne (1,060km; two days)
Warnings about Kangaroos, Wallabies and Emus getting in your path on the drive came in from various sources during the planning phase of the expedition, as most of the route wended through deserted stretches and thickly wooded national parks. I was specifically instructed not to drive between dusk and dawn when the chances of them being in your way would be the highest. When you travel at 110kmph reaction time is limited. I fitted a small whistle on the front grill of the car which emits a very high frequency sound to ward off animals and rodents. The sight of butchered wallabies on the roads was heartrending. I was more concerned about scavenger birds that ‘feasted’ on the carcasses. They are so engrossed in their meal that they would ‘take off’ at the last minute increasing the risk of a bird hit.
The biggest embarrassment during the expedition happened at a Caltex fuel station in Eden, where I realised I did not know which side of the car the tank was or how to open its cover. The lady inside the station kept looking at me to fathom what I was up to. She realised that I had been ‘stumped’ and came out to assist me. After the tank was filled up she wished me well for the rest of the day. Pleasant folks, these Australians are. Everywhere you are treated with smiles and a cheery “How are you mate?”
Tasmania (750km; two days)
Port Arthur witnessed a ghastly crime in 1996 when a lone shooter took the lives of 35 people and injured many more. While the perpetrator had been jailed for many lives—capital punishment is not one of the options in this country — the shooting sparked a nationwide debate on gun control, following which a ban was imposed on carrying guns. Since then the country has not witnessed any such incident. That’s an example of great governance. Personal liberties are alright to the extent that they do not harm or can cause harm to another human.
Melbourne to Adelaide (1,035km; two days)
The 245km Great Ocean Drive begins from the world famous surf town of Torquay and ends near Warrnambool. It is also known as the largest war memorial since the road was largely built by war returnees of the two world wars. The postcard perfect town of Anglesea and its pristine beach, road hugging cliffs, Gibsons Steps, Port Campbell National Park, London Arch, Bay of Islands, Cape Otway Lighthouse and the 12 Apostles are a few must-stop places. The last is arguably the most visited site on the Ocean Drive. They are limestone stacks, formed over centuries due to wave action and erosion.
The bronze statue of Don Bradman at the Adelaide Oval gave me goosebumps as the great maestro’s exploits have held me enthralled since childhood. It was not unusual for Don to walk down to catch a few hours of the game at the Kensington Oval, near where he lived. I was told of a cricketer, who despite the fall of wickets at the other end, had stoutly defended his stumps till tea. When he walked back to the pavilion he heard a voice,
“Well played, Son”. He turned in the direction of the voice and found it was the great Don who had complimented him. That’s true greatness.
Adelaide to Perth via Fraser Range Station (3,340km; five days)
Denial Bay, near Ceduna, is renowned for the best oysters in the region. Peter, the owner of Ceduna Oyster Barn, opened up a fresh shell, cleaned it expertly, squeezed a lime on it and asked me to try it. I quickly slid the uncooked meat down my throat and relished it. Peter told me that the oyster connoisseurs always had them naked with a dash of lime.
The 1,100km Nullarbor Plains, so known because of the vast expanse of drab terrain that has no trees, is supposed to be one of the most dangerous roads in the world and is the single largest exposure of limestone bedrocks. The bare desert is bereft of fuel, water, ration and communication.
Strict quarantine checks are exercised between borders of Southern and Western Australia, not seen between other State borders. Clear advance indications are given about halting the vehicles for inspection. Warnings are also displayed about the consequences of quarantine violations. I had to discard a bottle of honey!
'The Gap' is part of the Torndirrup National Park in Albany. This part of Western Australia was once connected to Antarctica when it was part of the larger continent of Gondwanaland. The viewpoint at the Natural Bridge can be a bit unnerving as it shakes when massive waves of the Pacific Ocean hit the rocks below and spew thick sprays of sea water.
The Botanical Garden in King’s Park, Perth is home to hundreds of native plants from various regions of Australia. Relocation of such plants was done with extreme care. When one goes around the Park one feels the spirit of John Forrest, the first Premier of Western Australia, who envisioned that the Park would “enable children 1,000 years hence to see our country as it was when Stirling landed”. It is such visionaries who transform a nation and breathe life into it.
Perth to Darwin (4,280km; six days)
On the drive beyond Geraldton I got a bit weary in the eyes and almost made a fatal mistake. I missed a 60kmph repair site speed warning. The warden was alarmed and he stepped aside and almost fell. I applied breaks out of instinct and reversed. The warden recovered from his ‘trauma’ and gave me a lecture on road accidents. I had acted just in time because a couple of road trains came hurtling from the opposite direction.
The Gantheaume Point, near Broome, is idyllic to enjoy a sunset. The red stone Bingle Bingles formations in the backdrop of the pristine waters of the Indian Ocean is a marvel. At low tide footprints of dinosaurs that roamed these parts of the world 130 million years ago can be seen. Another interesting sight is the ruins of Anastasia’s Pool that was built by the lighthouse keeper for his wife who suffered from arthritis!
On the way to Halls Creek the landscape became greener. There were many warnings against forest fires and one of the signages said, “We don’t like our lizards fried”. A Pilbara Goanna on the edge of the road seemed fearless. The Boab tree is the Australian Outback equivalent of the coconut tree. It is used as food, for art and even prison.
The Gregory National Park is the second largest in Northern Territory and is home to many indigenous tribes. The Park has stunning red escarpments. Rocks and caves contain a huge lot of aboriginal art. I was concerned by the incessant warnings to be ‘crocwise’; the water bodies of the National Park is home to the largest saltwater crocodiles in the region! I prayed to be kept away from any biological requirement.
Myths and facts about crocodiles and their interrelationship in the ecosystem are vividly described in The Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin. I ordered a Croc Schnitzel at The Tap and waited with some amount of unease for the order to mature. The humongous portion arrived with mounds of fries, veggies and two large pieces of crumb fried croc meat, arranged to look like the jaws of the crocodile. My apprehensions were belied; meat tasted just like chicken, the same consistency.
To the outside world aboriginals seem like vagrants and potential trouble makers. Originally, sustenance seekers with very little needs and traditional beliefs, customs and practices, they were thrown out of their own lands by the white explorers and settlers, starting with Captain Cook.
The era of white settlement coincided with the cultural denudation of the indigenes, alienation of their lands and susceptibility to newer diseases. They became outcasts in their own land. Till 1974 they were not even citizens with equal rights in their country.
Darwin to Cairns (3,650km; five days)
Mataranka is known as the “Capital Of The Never Never”, as the town was the setting of an autobiographical novel by Jeannie Gunn by the name, We of the Never, Never. Mataranka also has the largest manmade termite mound in the world. Termite mounds are commonplace and they dot the landscape of Northern Territory.
One of the most irritating features of the entire expedition was encountering flies of different shapes and sizes, particularly in Western Australia and Northern Territory. They are everywhere and unless your mouth and nostrils are protected they will inhabit the orifices. When I shared my observation that an overwhelming number of Australians are left handed, the Manager of the hotel quickly responded that it is because the right hand is busy thwacking flies!
Reef HQ in Townsville is the largest living coral reef aquarium anywhere in the world. The humongous aquarium holds 2.5 lakh litre of water and has over 130 coral species and 120 fish species. A pneumatic wave machine creates water motion inside the aquarium and much of it is open to the weather, thereby receiving sunlight, moonlight, precipitation just like the normal coral reefs do.
Cairns to Sydney via Brisbane (2,610km; three days)
Sugarcane fields abound on both sides of the road between Cairns and Mackay. Mackay region produces 4,20,000 tonnes of refined sugar annually. The extent of sugarcane cultivation can be gauged if one knows that it takes eight tonnes of cane to produce one tonne of raw sugar! Special narrow gauge cane trains transport cane from fields to mills within 24 hours of harvesting. The unassuming Rod Laver was the toast of the world in the 1960s, for to this day, no one has repeated his feat of two calendar year Grand Slams. He excelled on all surfaces and pocketed 200 single titles besides five Davis Cup titles as part of the Aussie team — an incredible feat. Laver was referred to as the Rockhampton Rocket in tennis circles. When I passed through Rockhampton, billboards referred to Rockhampton as “the beef capital of the world”.